In the spare cavern of Gleason's Gym in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, Heather "the Heat" Hardy, long blond hair pulled into a ponytail atop her head, her Black Adidas track suit zipped against the chill of a cold spring morning, watches two amateur fighters go at the heavy bags.
"Keep punching, girls," she says.
Just weeks before, Hardy defended her WBC World title against Edina Kiss on the undercard of the Danny Garcia Keith Thurman fight at the Barclay's Center in a brutally elegant match that propelled the undefeated World Feather Weight, and Super Bantam Weight Champion, to 19 and 0. Today she's back at work. A day that starts at six in the morning. and keeps going well past dark.
Hardy is the first woman to sign a long-term contract (with promoter Lou Dibella); the first to fight at Barclay's Center and the first to appear (along with Shelly Vincent) in a televised fight. A tenacious Gerritsen Beach girl who walked into Gleason's at 28-years-old to see what she could do, Hardy ended up having the kind of meteoric rise of which legends are made; Golden Gloves after one year of training, her first professional fight a year and a half later, then nineteen more victories in just five years; corporate sponsorships from Dove and Adidas, and a documentary about her life making the rounds at film festivals.
Inside the ring, Hardy is undefeated. Outside of it she's leading a revolution.
"I come from a long line of badass women," she says. “My great-grandmother came to this country, was the first volunteer firefighter in my old neighborhood. My grandmother was the first [woman] gym teacher in our neighborhood's Catholic school. My mom always told me no one on the street is going to beat you like your mama, and 19 pro-fights later she's right. I'm a tough Irish girl."
Knocked down in the first round of her 2012 professional debut, Hardy pulled herself up and went on to viciously pummel her opponent for the next four rounds, winning by unanimous decision. At the bell for the last round of her 2016 Featherweight Championship fight with Shelly Vincent; a close, brutal and thrilling match that was televised on NBCSN, Hardy popped up from her corner and stalked in a triumphant menace, chin high. It was a moment of total clarity for anyone watching, breathtaking how fast she moved in to seal her victory, how at the final bell she embraced her bloodied opponent like they were sisters.
The first words out of Hardy's mouth after being declared champion were to thank Shelly Vincent. Her second words were to claim the victory for all women.
Later Vincent would go on to dispute the judges, to say that Hardy was "everything that's wrong with women's boxing." An insult Hardy shrugged off. She was more concerned with the bigger picture. A woman's boxing match broadcast on national television wasn't just historically significant; it was a strategic step in a drawn-out battle for respect, opportunity and equal pay that Hardy has been waging since she turned pro in a traditionally sexist sport. It was also, in Hardy's eyes, about two women overcoming something bigger than athletic discrimination. Both boxers survived rape as children, and Hardy viewed their competition as being about regaining power; forming a community around strength, knowing you can survive anything.
"That fight with me and Shelly," Hardy says, "that was all heart. Nobody held anything back, because we both know what it's like to fight for our life."
Hardy says you can't deny the connection among women who've suffered assault, the feeling that 'She's one of mine,' that sense of drive and determination innate to so many rape survivors.
"Girls like me and Shelly who are vocal about the abuse are saying, look you don't have to be ashamed. I'm not ashamed, I'm telling you look, I rose from this. I feel responsible to let all the other girls know I was abused but I'm okay and you can be okay too. You don't have to be afraid and you don't have to be ashamed and you don't have to be isolated. You can show the world you can fight for your life with just two hands and come out victorious. Rape can be an excuse or it can be a fuel to drive you to do incredible things."
Working class, from a provincial Irish enclave in south Brooklyn, the kind of place that rarely sees new faces move in and where children take over family homes generation after generation, Hardy dreamed of being the first woman to pitch for the New York Yankees, of joining the NYPD and becoming a detective and of traveling the world. She beat the odds getting out of Gerritsen Beach, and getting a degree in Forensic Psychology from John Jay at 22. Then she became pregnant and saw her options narrow.
By the time Hardy met her trainer Devon Cormack she was raising her daughter alone, working multiple jobs, and living with her younger sister (also a single mother) who stayed home with the kids so Heather could become the breadwinner. Hardy worked as a secretary, taught exercise classes, ran an internet marketing website and delivered books. Neither she nor her sister was getting child support, and it was tough putting food on the table. When Cormack agreed to train Hardy for free in his spare time she bent her schedule to fit his. Eventually Hardy was able to quit her other jobs to become a full-time trainer at Gleason's. After Hurricane Sandy flooded her neighborhood leaving it in shambles, without power, or transportation, Hardy sometimes ran nine miles to the gym to meet with clients, sleeping on a couch in a back office.
"Heather has something you can't teach." Cormack says. "No matter how hard a girl is coming at her she’s toe to toe. With most of the guys, you can't get that kind of heart. With most guys I can hardly get them in the gym to train, but I never have to worry about that with her."
Poverty, hurricanes, floods, abuse and the strongest opponents in the ring haven't held Hardy back, but like every other woman in the sport she's fighting for one precious spot on the undercard, and working full-time to make ends meet.
After Hardy's clients finish their workouts and make their way out through the bustling gym, Cormack helps bind her hands in rainbow hand wraps. Talk of a rematch with Shelly Vincent has her training hard. (Vincent's twitter icon is an illustration of her holding Hardy's decapitated head). But whether or not that fight happens depends largely on Hardy attaining another milestone – first woman boxer to be paid commensurate with her record.
"A man in her position?" Cormack says. "No comparison. I know 17 – 0 guys who are on the co-main event of boxing. Getting tremendously more money, more than $100 thousand. She got a fraction of that [for the fight with Edina Kiss]. She got one tenth, with the same record." Hardy was offered $7 thousand for the fight, and was able to negotiate up to roughly $10 thousand.
"On the surface it looks like we're going places," Hardy says. "But we're clawing for the small pieces offered to us. If you say you won’t fight unless they pay you, they shrug it off and go to a different girl. There's only one place on the card [for a women's bout] so they can pit us against each other, make us fight each other so we don't fight them."
A cascade of excuses has come from the WBC, from promoters, from sports networks and from venues as to why women boxers aren't paid according to their qualifications and are relegated to one spot in the ghetto of the undercard. Some are false; like there aren’t enough women fighting for there to be two women’s bouts on a card. Others are an obscene double standard; like, women need to guarantee exorbitant ticket sales to be allowed to fight. Hardy has obliterated every obstacle to her success, including personally selling tens of thousands in tickets for her events, and fighting in a premier boxing championship at the Ford Amphitheater, broadcast on NBCSN. But the new excuse, she says, is that she should be happy with what she's got.
"It's important that I get paid." Hardy says. "I'm tired of hearing 'you're getting more than any other woman.' You know what? Every other woman is getting way less than she deserves. I'm only getting less than I deserve. So that's got to be taken off the table."
"I was 19-0 defending my WBC title and they walked me out before they even opened the doors of the Barkley's Center" she says, still incredulous. "I boxed three rounds with no one in the stands. I walked out with my coaches holding my championship belt over my head and not one person was there to clap their hands. I was furious, I was sad, I was upset and to add fuel to the fire, a boy making his pro-debut – having never proved himself, having never moved up the ranks – boxed fourth, boxed in front of a stadium of people. I walked back stage and saw the doctor and after such an incredible win I cried, because of how many levels of people allowed me to walk out there to an empty stadium. And I thought wow. Things have got to change."
Boxing fans have been clamoring for a rematch between Hardy and Vincent, since the moment the two stepped out of the ring at Coney Island in August of 2016; and Vincent's insistence that she was robbed has stoked a bitter rivalry.
On the other side of the gym Alica "Slick"Ashley, the 49-year old four time world champion and Melissa "Killer Mel" Vil are training for their own upcoming fights. Hardy steps into the ring to run through her routine with Cormack. She's half way through her fourteen hour day, slipping beneath his jabs, punching hard into the mitts. She says she’s got to turn up her game, to not always be so thankful and grateful and subservient. She says in the past she’s been reserved when talking about the pay gap but that has to change.
"Drastic times call for drastic measures," Hardy says. "I think it's come down to if you’re not going to pay me, I'm not going to do it. This fight doesn't happen unless I get everything I want."